Return of the Lavish Corporate Retreat

The recession might have kept American travelers home -- or at least closer to home this year, but the real damage for the industry has been corporate travel, especially the booking of business class airplane seats and corporate retreats at lavish resorts.

But now there appears to be a glimmer of hope. Hotel and convention organizers say that more events are being booked and that businesses are slowly becoming more willing to spend again.

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This year goes down as one of the worst for the travel business in decades but 2010 is looking a bit brighter and by 2011 many industry executives expect a rebound. It won't be like the boom times seen just back in 2006 and 2007, but they predict there will be a return to profitability.

In the meantime, leisure travelers used to deals, promotions and all sorts of price cuts shouldn't fret. They aren't disappearing anytime soon for hotels or cruises. There is still a massive surplus of rooms available and companies are doing whatever they can to fill those spots.

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"I think it's still going to be a very much promotion-driven market. Consumers are going to be very cautious about spending discretionary income. They will still travel, but they will have to see a value that is well defined," said Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"The message here is that there is no better time to travel in the history of travel. There are so many great values out there."

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Sain said the industry has hit it bottom and is slowly climbing out of its troubles.

"It is going to take several years to get back to the upward growth that the travel industry saw back in 2006 and 2007," he said.

But the real bread and butter for hotels comes from conventions. Corporate scandals, bankruptcies and just general belt-tightening evaporated that market in 2009.

"Where most destinations have felt it is on the meetings and convention side," Sain said. "I call it the AIG affect."

Bruce Seigel, director of sales and marketing for the two Ritz-Carlton resorts in Naples, Fla., said that corporate retreat bookings in "2010 and 2011 are quite strong."

"There was certainly a hysteria that took place," Seigel said, but now companies realize that they need to recognize and reward their employees.

"Our key messages is: It's not extravagant, if it produces results," he said.

(Like many other high-end resorts, the two Ritz properties did not cut rates for individual tourists but were offering packages that included up to $180 in nightly credits to be used at restaurants, the spa, golf or elsewhere at the resort. Those deals aren't going away.)

Lindsey Ueberroth, executive vice president of Preferred Hotel Group, said that the downturn in corporate travel has also really hurt her member hotels.

"If they are traveling they are sending fewer people, they're having shorter stays," Ueberroth said. "They used to send executives to four and five star hotels, now they are staying at four star hotels or lower."

But now for the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, Ueberroth said, the majority of Preferred Hotels are seeing a rebound in corporate meetings and events.

(Leisure travel is also going to take longer, she said, with "people really watching what they spend, looking for great deals" for at least another year.)

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